Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Legal Ethics
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Lippa and Manmohan Grewal sold a gas station to Theodore Hansen, who later sold it to Junction Market Fairview, L.C. (JMF). The sale contract required Hansen to make regular installment payments, with the final balance due after three years. Hansen missed many payments and failed to pay the full balance when due. The Grewals initiated foreclosure proceedings over six years after Hansen's first missed payment. The applicable statute of limitations for a breach of contract action is six years, raising the question of when the statute begins to run for installment contracts.The Sixth District Court in Sanpete County granted partial summary judgment in favor of JMF, concluding that the statute of limitations began when Hansen missed the first payment, making the Grewals' foreclosure action too late. The court awarded sole control of the gas station to JMF and ordered the Grewals to release the title. When the Grewals failed to comply, JMF seized the station and sold it to a third party. The district court also awarded JMF attorney fees under the Public Waters Access Act and the reciprocal attorney fees statute.The Utah Supreme Court reviewed the case and found that the sale of the gas station to a third-party bona fide purchaser rendered the Grewals' appeal on the title issue moot, as no court action could affect the litigants' rights to the property. However, the issue of attorney fees was not moot. The court held that the district court did not abuse its discretion in awarding attorney fees to JMF under the reciprocal attorney fees statute. The court affirmed the award of attorney fees and remanded to the district court to determine the amount of reasonable attorney fees JMF incurred in defending against the appeal. View "Grewal v. Junction Market Fairview" on Justia Law

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Anthony D. Lee, Sr. was convicted of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault in 1996 and sentenced to 100 years in prison. Lee's defense was that the victim had voluntarily entered his car and that any sexual activity was consensual. He later sought postconviction relief, arguing that his attorney, Richard Friedman, had failed to interview several potential witnesses who could have corroborated his testimony. Lee supported his motion with six affidavits from these potential witnesses. The trial court denied Lee's ineffective-assistance claim, and the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the decision.Lee then sought relief in federal court under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The district court denied his petition, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit disagreed with the lower courts' decisions. The appellate court found that the state court had based its prejudice analysis on the flawed assumption that each witness would have merely repeated their affidavits and refused to say another word if called to testify. The appellate court vacated and remanded the case to the district court to hold an evidentiary hearing on Lee's claim.After a three-day hearing, the district court again denied Lee's § 2254 petition. The court concluded that Lee failed to establish that Friedman's performance fell below an objective standard of professional competence. Alternatively, the court concluded that any errors Friedman might have committed did not meaningfully compromise Lee's defense given the strength of the state's case. Lee appealed this decision.The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court's decision. The appellate court found that Lee failed to demonstrate a "reasonable probability" that the result of his trial would have been different had Friedman not committed professional errors. The court noted that none of the affidavits provided an explanation for the severity of the victim's injuries, and that the additional testimony from the witnesses may have ultimately weakened Lee's defense by contradicting his testimony or their own affidavits. View "Lee v. Galloway" on Justia Law

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The case involves East Central Water District ("East Central") and the City of Grand Forks ("City"). East Central alleged that the City unlawfully curtailed its water service area, violating federal and state laws. East Central sought to declare a water supply and service agreement with the City void from the beginning under a specific North Dakota statute. The agreement, entered into in 2000, was designed to avoid conflict in providing potable water as the City annexed territory in East Central's service area. The agreement was subject to a North Dakota statute that required the public lending authority to be a party to the agreement. However, the Bank of North Dakota, the public lending authority, was not a party to the agreement.The case was initially brought before the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota. The City answered East Central’s complaint and counterclaimed, and brought a third-party complaint against William Brudvik and Ohnstad Twichell, P.C. for legal malpractice in their representation of the City during negotiations and execution of the Agreement. The City then moved the federal district court to certify questions to the Supreme Court of North Dakota on the interpretation of the North Dakota statute.The Supreme Court of North Dakota was asked to answer two certified questions of law: whether the language “invalid and unenforceable” in the North Dakota statute means an agreement made without the public lending authority as a party is (1) void from the beginning or (2) voidable and capable of ratification. The court concluded that the language “invalid and unenforceable” means void from the beginning, and does not mean voidable and capable of ratification. The court reasoned that the statute speaks to the authority to contract on this subject matter, as opposed to the manner or means of exercising one’s power to contract. Therefore, none of the parties were authorized to contract for water services without the public lending authority being a party to the agreement. View "East Central Water District v. City of Grand Forks" on Justia Law

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This case involves a legal malpractice claim brought by Anne Fahey, Timothy Fife, and Richard Fife (Plaintiffs) against their former attorneys, Andrew Cook, Lukas Andrud, and Ohnstad Twichell, P.C. (Defendants). The claim stems from Defendants' representation of Plaintiffs in a previous case concerning the distribution of their mother's estate. The mother, Marianne Fife, owned a mineral interest in North Dakota and was a resident of Idaho when she died intestate. She had conveyed her mineral interest to her husband, Richard Fife, shortly before her death. Plaintiffs sued their father's estate, claiming their mother lacked capacity to execute the deed due to medication and undue influence from their father. The district court rescinded the deed but held that the mineral interest still passed to Richard Fife under North Dakota's intestate succession laws.The district court's decision was affirmed on appeal. Plaintiffs then initiated a malpractice action against Defendants, alleging negligence in the underlying litigation by failing to contest the validity of a quitclaim deed for their mother's interest in an Idaho home and failing to argue that their mother's estate had a cause of action against their father's estate. Plaintiffs claimed that if Defendants had taken these actions, the value of their mother's estate would have increased, and they would have received some of the minerals under intestate succession laws.The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Defendants, concluding that they did not breach their duty to Plaintiffs and that Plaintiffs did not suffer damages caused by the alleged breach of duty. The court reasoned that even if Plaintiffs had successfully taken the suggested actions, they still would not have received their mother's mineral interests.On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the district court erred in granting summary judgment on their legal malpractice claims. They contended that the court erred in concluding that their mother's estate, for valuation and distribution purposes, did not include real or personal property outside of North Dakota. They also argued that Defendants were collaterally estopped from arguing that their mother's interest in the Idaho home and personal property would never be part of the estate.The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed the district court's judgment. The court concluded that the district court did not err in holding that collateral estoppel does not apply in this case. The court also held that the district court correctly concluded that the Idaho home would not have been part of the mother's North Dakota intestate estate because it was community property and would have passed to the father as a matter of law. Therefore, the court found that Defendants' alleged failure to challenge the Idaho quitclaim deed's validity and argue that the mother's estate had a cause of action against the father's estate did not proximately cause Plaintiffs any damages. View "Fahey v. Cook" on Justia Law

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Mark Andrew Belyeu was charged with five offenses related to sexual exploitation of a minor. He initially pled guilty to two of the charges, but later withdrew his pleas. After a change of counsel, Belyeu again pled guilty to the same two charges. The court found his guilty pleas were knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently given. Belyeu was subsequently sentenced and judgment was entered.Belyeu filed a petition for postconviction relief, alleging that his guilty pleas were not knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently given due to ineffective assistance of his trial counsel and the existence of newly discovered evidence. The district court dismissed Belyeu’s claims of actual innocence and his sentence not being authorized by law, and limited the evidentiary hearing to the remaining two claims. After an evidentiary hearing, the district court denied Belyeu’s petition for postconviction relief.The Supreme Court of North Dakota affirmed the district court's decision. The court found that Belyeu failed to show that his counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. The court also found that Belyeu failed to show that but for his counsel's alleged errors, he would not have pled guilty and would have insisted on going to trial. Furthermore, the court found that Belyeu did not meet his burden to show newly discovered evidence. Therefore, the court concluded that Belyeu could not show a manifest injustice based on the advice of his counsel or the existence of newly discovered evidence. View "Belyeu v. State" on Justia Law

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The case involves Miguel Tebalan Rivera who was convicted of second-degree murder and commission of a crime of violence while in possession of a knife with a blade longer than three inches. Rivera filed an application for postconviction relief, arguing that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to advise him that if he did not testify, he would be convicted of second-degree murder.The trial court granted Rivera's application for postconviction relief, finding that his trial counsel's performance was deficient and that this deficiency prejudiced Rivera's defense. The court found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to advise him that if he did not testify, he would be convicted of second-degree murder. The court also found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to recognize and explain to Rivera that if he did not testify, he would be waiving his right to present his claim of self-defense.The State of Rhode Island appealed the trial court's decision, arguing that the trial court erred in finding that Rivera's trial counsel was ineffective. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island affirmed the trial court's decision, holding that Rivera's trial counsel's performance was deficient and that this deficiency prejudiced Rivera's defense. The court found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to advise him that if he did not testify, he would be convicted of second-degree murder. The court also found that Rivera's trial counsel failed to recognize and explain to Rivera that if he did not testify, he would be waiving his right to present his claim of self-defense. View "Rivera v. State of Rhode Island" on Justia Law

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In 2018, Brian Hollis pleaded guilty to one count of lewd conduct with a minor under sixteen and four counts of sexual exploitation of a child. He also admitted to being a repeat sexual offender, which mandates a fifteen-year minimum term of confinement. The district court imposed an indeterminate life sentence with twenty-five years determinate on the lewd conduct charge and concurrent determinate sentences of fifteen years for each of the sexual exploitation charges. Hollis appealed his conviction and sentence, but the Idaho Court of Appeals affirmed them.Hollis then filed a pro se petition for post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The district court appointed the Kootenai County Public Defender to represent him. However, Hollis' conflict counsel filed a motion to withdraw, stating that he was no longer able to "ethically or effectively represent" Hollis due to statements made by the district court judge against conflict counsel in a similar post-conviction case. The district court denied the motion to withdraw and the motion to continue the summary disposition hearing. The district court subsequently granted the State’s motion for summary disposition, holding that Hollis had not supported any of his claims with any admissible evidence.The Supreme Court of the State of Idaho vacated the judgment of the district court, reversed the decisions on the motion to continue and motion to withdraw, vacated the decision granting summary disposition to the State, and remanded for further proceedings. The court held that the district court abused its discretion in denying the motion to withdraw and the motion to continue. The court also ordered the assignment of a new district court judge on remand. View "Hollis v. State" on Justia Law

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The defendant, Charles Geoffrey Santoro, was convicted of negligent homicide after a retrial. The case stemmed from an incident at a bar where Santoro and another patron, Levi, had a confrontation. Santoro claimed that Levi choked him, leading him to reverse his truck in an attempt to escape, which resulted in Levi being run over and killed.In the first trial, Santoro was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, with five years suspended and no parole restriction. However, this conviction was reversed by the Supreme Court of the State of Montana due to ineffective assistance of counsel.In the retrial, the District Court granted the State's motion to exclude expert testimony on the effects of strangulation, which had been admitted in the first trial. Santoro was again convicted and this time sentenced to 20 years in prison with a full 20-year parole restriction.The Supreme Court of the State of Montana found that the District Court abused its discretion by excluding the expert testimony on strangulation. The court held that this testimony was relevant and could have assisted the jury in determining whether Santoro's actions were a "gross deviation" from that of a reasonable person in Santoro's situation. The court also found that the State's enhanced sentencing recommendation after retrial was vindictive and that the District Court erred by failing to allow Santoro the opportunity to speak prior to sentencing. The court reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial. View "State v. Santoro" on Justia Law

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The case involves a group of bond investors (plaintiffs) who bought and sold certain types of corporate bonds from and to a group of financial institutions and major dealers in the corporate bond market (defendants). The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated antitrust laws by engaging in a pattern of parallel conduct and anticompetitive collusion to restrict forms of competition that would have improved odd-lot pricing for bond investors. The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the case.Several months after the district court's order, it was discovered that the district court judge had presided over part of the case while his wife owned stock in one of the defendants. Although she had divested that stock before the district court judge issued his decision, the plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the district court judge should have disqualified himself due to this prior financial interest of his wife.The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was tasked with deciding whether, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 455, vacatur was warranted because the district court judge was required to disqualify himself before issuing his decision. The court concluded that while there was no outright conflict when the district court judge ruled on the merits of this action, § 455(a) and related precedents required pre-judgment disqualification, thus vacatur was warranted. As a result, the court vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the district court for further proceedings. View "Litovich v. Bank of America Corp." on Justia Law

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Willie Slocum, Jr. appealed the denial of his motion to correct, vacate, or set aside his convictions and sentences based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Slocum was indicted on two counts of drug conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. § 846, but argued that the two charged conspiracies were actually one. He claimed that he was punished twice for the same conspiracy in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause, and that his trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance by failing to raise a double jeopardy challenge before the trial court. The district court denied his motion without ordering a response from the government or holding an evidentiary hearing.The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit found that the district court erred in its decision. The appellate court determined that Slocum was indeed punished twice for a single conspiracy in violation of the Double Jeopardy Clause. However, the court noted that it was unclear whether trial counsel had a strategic reason for failing to raise a double jeopardy challenge. The court concluded that Slocum was entitled to an evidentiary hearing under 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b) where the performance of his trial counsel could be assessed. Therefore, the court vacated the district court’s denial of Slocum’s § 2255 motion and remanded for an evidentiary hearing on Slocum’s ineffective assistance claim. View "United States v. Slocum" on Justia Law